Is the UN leadership turning the Millenium Development Goals from an opportunity into a liability?

September 12, 2005

On September 14th, the largest summit of national leaders in global history will take place at UN headquarters in New York to assess progress towards the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), including goals to beat malaria, tuberculosis, and other medical conditions affecting the world's poorest people.

However, according to an article by Professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa in the international health journal PLoS Medicine, the UN's Deputy Secretary General--its number two official--ordered UN scientists to delay accurate measurements on these life-saving goals ahead of this week's summit.

The Deputy Secretary General wrote that the summit must not be "distracted by arguments over the measurement of the MDGs." When UN scientists proposed to improve their measurements for the life-saving goals--measurements that would show if the MDGs were on track or not--the UN leadership balked, saying this "would only distract from the results that [the UN] would like to achieve."

Attaran writes that the UN's political suppression of the scientific process diverts attention from a key problem: that the MDGs talk of concrete trends toward helping people in extreme poverty, but usually without concrete verification that the trend really happens.

For example, the MDG for women's health states that from 1990-2015, the maternal mortality rate should decline 75%. But UN scientists have for years warned that too few reliable measurements of maternal mortality exist, and as they write, "it would be inappropriate to...draw conclusions about trends." Much the same problems exist for UN goals on malaria or tuberculosis.

"The MDGs are extremely laudable goals, but without scientifically valid data, they become meaningless to the very people they are meant to help," says Attaran. "It is disrespectful to speculate about saving lives, when neglecting to measure whether lives actually are saved."

Unless this crisis of immeasurability is urgently resolved, he says, "the MDGs could turn from opportunity to liability. It helps neither the billions of people in illness or poverty, nor the UN itself, if 2015 arrives and the UN still lacks verification that its goals were or were not met by the deadline."

Attaran cautions greater care over protecting those human lives, and urges diplomats at the September 14th summit to question the organization's neglect of science and measurement.
Citation: Attaran A (2005) An immeasurable crisis? A criticism of the Millennium Development Goals and why they cannot be measured. PLoS Med 2(10): e318.

Amir Attaran
Canada Research Chair
University of Ottawa

PLEASE MENTION PLoS MEDICINE ( AS THE SOURCE FOR THESE ARTICLES. THANK YOU. All works published in PLoS Medicine are open access. Everything is immediately available without cost to anyone, anywhere--to read, download, redistribute, include in databases, and otherwise use--subject only to the condition that the original authorship is properly attributed. Copyright is retained by the authors. The Public Library of Science uses the Creative Commons Attribution License.


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